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Lilt and Wit, Lapidary Perfection at Tanglewood


Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts Yuja Wang (Hilary Scott photo)

With the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven, the first half of the Tanglewood BSO concert on August 5 seemed to commence rather abruptly since the symphony does not even begin with an introductory section, but rather gets going almost as emphatically as does the Fifth. The second movement with its repeated woodwind chords is regularly associated with Nepomuk Mälzel, the inventor of the metronome. Elsewhere relentless rhythmic figures are also very much in evidence. Nevertheless, the best performances, and this was one, manage to convey the lilt and wit that Beethoven also intended in perhaps his most genial and bucolic expression in the symphonic idiom.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the BSO’s most frequent guest conductor over the last few years, presided over the gemütlich proceedings (perhaps agradables in Spanish) with a technique that was very interesting to watch. At times he kept time with broad deliberate motions, only to appear to stop conducting altogether until important downbeats needed to be telegraphed by large gestures. But perhaps most interesting was how he often subdivided his beat apparently in 16th-note intervals in the allegretto scherzando second movement. The result was an unerring pulse over which lyric expressions alternated with dramatic outbursts. The orchestra responded with great enthusiasm and Beethoven was very well served by this performance.

We had chosen to come to this concert in large part to hear the twenty-four-year-old Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang. She is something of a phenom. Her appearances on YouTube (especially the Chinese site) are legion, and she has the distinction, with 1.6 million hits, of offering the fastest and most accurate performance on YouTube of The Flight of the Bumblebee. That she is also a poet of the keyboard is evidenced by many other examples.

TFotBB, by the way, is a study unto itself on YouTube. I first experienced it under the tutelage of Viennese pianist Till Fellner who had very definite ideas about which performer should receive a gold star. He also found performances by some famous pianists to be lamentably laughable. When we later moved on to a certain famous c-sharp minor prelude, Till remarked, “Life is too short to play Rachmaninov or to drink bad wine.” But Fellner enjoys hearing Rachmaninov and would probably have cheered Yuja Wang’s performance of the romantic master’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

What was most remarkable was how Wang was able to embody the variations with appropriately varied techniques. She did not demand unusually fast tempi overall, though her rapid passagework had velocity and lapidary perfection indeed. In the famous inverted variation (XVIII) she certainly out-romanticized the composer who was, after all, somewhat buttoned down as a performer. In her louder utterances she actually levitated from her bench, bringing the weight of her entire body to bear on the keyboard. The result was a large tone that also had great beauty. When speed alone is relied upon to produce fff dynamics, tone can become harsh; only the combination of weight and velocity can succeed, as it did here. She was abetted by the skillful accompaniment of Frühbeck de Burgos, though one would have preferred if he had called for a bit more restraint from the band at times. The musical joke at the end lost much of its intended effect when the bathetic last notes from the piano were covered by the orchestra.

Richard Strauss described his most beloved opera, Rosenkavalier, as his tribute to Mozart. With a fine orchestra in the pit and undoubted stars on the stage, the effect can almost match the lightness, wit lyricism and emotional understanding of the earlier master. But in the orchestral suite, much of the delicacy is lost. With a large orchestra exposed on the stage instead of lavish sets framing Elizabeth Schwarzkopf or some other beauty, one faces a bombastic Strauss tone poem more than an effervescent-though-knowingly-ironic mirror to human foibles. The orchestral suite is Schlag compared to the opera’s Champagne.

Certainly the suite got the performance it deserved. Frühbeck de Burgos, while unable to find much incredible lightness or subtlety, nevertheless made sure that the audience got its money’s worth. He got the ritardandi and accelerandi in the “Ohne mich waltz just right and succeeded in setting up all of the instrumental solos with a good ear for balances. The audience loved the rowdy, frenzied conclusion.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I did not hear the Beethoven 8 as I was somewhere between Rhode Island and Connecticut and for the first half of the concert I was driving from hill to hill trying to get WCRB. Surprisingly I did found a good reception eventually via my stock car antenna and was able to hear the Rhapsody, I did not go for the Rosenkavalier however…

    It is not that I like the Rach’s Rhapsody too much. I am not sure I like them at all. They are kind of contrived, showy , bravura-filed, glitzy music that hardly ever played well because of multiple reasons into which I will not go. What I was trying to hear from that concert is the celebration of my dislike of Yuja Wang. I really do not like what she does in her play and what she represents. Of cause it is nothing personally, sticky business.

    Yuja is from the generation of contemporary players who have very fine techniques and she is cashing her “notes rendering”, no one blames her for that, but does she interpret her music thoughtfully or even interestingly? From whatever I hear from her it was juts “machine beat” with no sense of sophisticated phasing or refined expressions. It was just blended, generic play, good to entertain the YouTube’s Morons but hardly sufficient, in my Feline mind, to be considered as a serious piano repertoire interpreter.

    What she showed off on Friday was even worse then I expected. The Rhapsodys were not only the typical for her “firework of technical tediousness” but she and BSO even were not able to play together. They more or less caught up in the very end of the peace, while BSO demonstrated some kind of lethargic stubbornness, right along with becoming signature for Tangelwood “bloated” Sound.

    I truly did not like what I heard. It is not that I “blame” Frühbeck de Burgos, Ms. Wang or BSO. It was just one of many “current” concerts, it came and went, “it” did not happen, not big deal, let move forward. Still, in the back of my mind I feel that if Boston gets saturated with such of guest stars who demonstrate the performance of that amplitude then it is not good at all. In the break Brian Bell was taking about something and in his understandable style we was claiming that BSO today is “the best orchestral in the world and arguably the best in US” (interesting twist). Ironically in 30 minutes BSO and Ms. Wang proceeded with a concern that was below all imaginary standards even for a weekly concert in a parochial music school of some kind of forgotten by God shtetl.

    Well, once again, driving back to Boston at that nigh I was forced to recuperate by recordings of BSO from 40s. Thanks Frühbeck de Burgos, Ms. Wang or BSO – you were good inspiration for THAT on Friday.

    PS: My salute to WCRB, I was right at Connecticut border and I did get in the end very good reception.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm

  2. sophisticated phasing? end of the peace? monsieur, maybe learn how to spell and write first with your feline mind before opening your foul mouth. you must be living a sad life to drive all the way for a celebration of hatred of the performer.
    enjoy living in the past, you won’t like any current concert because you heart, soul and mind is unable to open up and receive the beauty.

    Comment by robert — August 8, 2011 at 9:24 am

  3. “I did not hear the Beethoven 8 as I was somewhere between Rhode Island and Connecticut and for the first half of the concert I was driving from hill to hill trying to get WCRB. Surprisingly I did found a good reception eventually via my stock car antenna and was able to hear the Rhapsody, I did not go for the Rosenkavalier however…” The kind of important details one might expect from a good scathing review.

    Comment by MarcoLamy — August 8, 2011 at 9:35 am

  4. Robert, I think this is not about shortage of your personal tolerance to my spelling as well as not about your envy of my “celebration of hate”. I will let all of it slide, including your unfortunate sense of humor. I do not think that I “enjoy living in the past” but rather I appreciate musical happenings that have certain inspirational capacity, instead of chewing the pop-corn “beauty” of careless sonic irritations. It is what I like and what I do not like and I never made a secret from what I am looking.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 8, 2011 at 11:18 am

  5. if you had the mind of the celebration of your dislike of yuja wang in your mind before it started, then what can anyone do to change your feline mind? nobody forced your to go to this concert.
    for your next time when you could spell, distinguish between sarcasm and sense of humor;)

    Comment by robert — August 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

  6. Robert, I would like to point out that your position regarding the Ms. Wang event was expressed only via your complaining regarding my spelling. If you use my careless spelling in order to dishonor my views about Ms. Wang performance then you do have sense of humor, the self-deprecated one.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  7. oh, not only the spelling, but your attitude and bloated mind.
    Romy the Cat? nice name, suit your cattiness… no dishonoring, but nice of you to admit your carelessness, i guess not only of spelling, but maybe of your youth?! do you have a recording of yourself that is sounds better than high school weekly concert? i am sure you think its sufficient for a serious repertoire interpreter.
    do not want to waste my time on the hopelessly narrowness of your mind, but oh man, its so dense, why don’t you recuperate your mind from the 40s?
    Rach Pag is a fun piece, with humor, color, perfect for a summer outdoor concert which happens to only have one rehearsal before.
    but of “cause”, freedom of speech rocks, please do share your secret and get inspired.

    Comment by robert — August 8, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  8. one more thing before i shut up for good.
    if you are looking for seriousness and profundity in rach pag, its like looking for an acrobat in a 80-90 age group, ain’t gonna happen, not even in the feline world.
    sorry,must be horrible to drive from hill or hill to heal.

    Comment by robert — August 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm

  9. I think we’ve had enough of the personal criticism…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm

  10. I do not think that THAT level of “personal criticism” is something that might bother me. I kind of let “robert” off the leash and let him to exercise his deep-seated desire to defense what he feels needed to be defended by the methods available to him. As in the case, it is nothing personally, strictly business, right? So, here is about the strictly business…. The “robert’s” view in the subject I think is very emblematic. There is an army people out there, mostly male gender, who took too close to hart the pulp fiction that musical industry marketing pimps created for them. The same males get hypnotized by sophomoric interviews and soloist’s flashy dress, or by the most recent Ms. Wang’s invention: the soloist mini-skirts. So, if in some kind of conversation somebody expresses anything less than blind admiration to the subject of their “externally educed esteem” then the world is flipping over in these male eyes. I have seen it again and again and I have no problems with it. Everyone have own reference points and for some people the need to defend the herd solidarity is too acute to bear. It happens not only among sport fans but also very much among the classical music listeners.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 14, 2011 at 9:09 pm

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